Friday, May 22, 2015

Interview with Dino 101's Betsy Kruk!

Betsy is a city girl turned partial cowgirl. Originally born and raised in a suburb of Chicago, she received her Bachelor’s Degree in Paleontology from Montana State University in 2012. There she competed on the equestrian team for 3 years, hence the cowgirl bit, as well as was a part of the second group of students to travel to China to study dinosaur eggs as a part of the Dinosaur Eggs and Education trip. Now she is living in the Great White North (a.k.a Canada) as a Master’s student working with Dr. Philip Currie. Her dinosaur of study is the exceptionally strange Pachyrhinosaurus (it’s even on a coin!), and she examines the histology, or microstructure, of the nasal boss to try to understand this bizarre structure. This past summer she was given the opportunity to be the main presenter for Dino 101.
Hadrosaur footprint from Paleontology Field Camp in 2010, near Choteau, Montana. (Photo provided by Betsy Kruk)
Question 1: You are currently involved in Dino 101 with Dr. Philip Currie at the University of Alberta.   Can you tell us a little about this project?

Dino 101 is a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) all about dinosaurs and paleontology. We showcase the amazing vertebrate collections we have at the University of Alberta, as well as spectacular sites around Alberta, such as Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. We talk about everything from appearances and anatomy, attack and defense, feeding, locomotion, and we even throw in a little geology and tectonics. The University of Alberta is the first Canadian university to offer a MOOC for credit; we have two versions of the class, PALEO 200, which is strictly the online course and PALEO 201 that is the in class experience. Of course there is the completely free version available on Coursera ( There are over 18,000 people signed up on Coursera, last I checked. That’s insane! That’s 18,000 people who have seen my face, it’s a little intimidating.

Question 2: At what age did you get inspired to pursue a career in paleontology?

                I have been interested in paleontology for as long as I can remember. But I definitely think it all clicked when I was 6 years old, we used to have weekly spelling quizzes in first grade and one week the extra credit words were paleontologist, dinosaur, and fossil. Once I knew how to spell paleontologist that was it, I’ve never wanted to do anything else. Sometimes I would briefly consider other career paths, but my young mind was incredibly rational. “I want to be an astronaut… no, I get motion sick too easily” “I want to be a veterinarian… no, I don’t like needles or cutting open animals.” It was ridiculous!

Question 3: What was your favorite dinosaur growing up? What dinosaur is your favorite now?

                My favorite dinosaur growing up was Deinonychus; I used to run around pretending I was one, making a hook with my finger and holding it near my ankle. Nowadays, I think the focus of my research is becoming my favorite dinosaur, Pachyrhinosaurus. He doesn’t get much love probably because everyone thinks he’s so ugly, with that big lumpy boss on his face. We actually have a skull of one nicknamed Harvey that I often push around on a cart; I’ve brought him to a talk I gave as well as some of the classes I’ve taught. I have taken so many pictures of him and worked on several scientific illustrations that he’s really grown on me.

Question 4: Paleontology is such a diverse field these days involving many disciplines. What advice would you give to an aspiring paleontologist today?

                For one, don’t give up. I’ve met so many people who said they wanted to study dinosaurs when they were younger, but they gave up on it. Also with that, you will hit some serious roadblocks in life. In university calculus kicked my butt; it was such a struggle. Another class was geomorphology, the teacher made it so difficult that you would fail every test, but then he would curve it so much that you miraculously passed. There are going to be times when you doubt yourself, just keep pushing through all the tough subjects you come across. Also, learn everything you can! The main disciplines of paleontology are geology and biology, don’t just major in one, do both! Or find a school that offers a paleontology option as part of a degree. Just don’t ever stop learning or pursuing your dream, it’s not going to be easy but it’s far more rewarding when you look back and see what you’ve overcome.
Inside the Forbidden City while I was in China conducting research on dinosaur eggs in 2011. (Photo provided by Betsy Kruk)
Question 5: Were there any subjects in college you dreaded?

                Calculus was the bane of my existence. I almost failed Calculus I and had to take Calculus II a second time before I passed. I really couldn’t see how calculus was going to help me as a paleontologist. We all used to think it was used as a weed-out class since it was required; we certainly lost some paleo undergrads to the wrath of derivatives and integrals.

Question 6: What was or is your favorite research project? What are some of your current projects?

                Definitely my Master’s thesis is my favorite project. I love histology! I get to take pieces of horns and frills and bosses from ceratopsians and make thin sections of them! I love being able to craft something with my hands and I find those slides to be absolutely beautiful. Bones do such odd things on a microscopic level and it’s really interesting to try to determine what it all means. From working to understand the histology of the nasal boss of Pachyrhinosaurus, I realized I had no idea what it should look like, so I increased my sample size and am looking at a bunch of different cranial structures of ceratopsians. Yes in a way I do destroy dinosaur bones, but they are from samples that will never be on display, are quite fragmentary, and essentially the only thing they are good for is research. So why not find out what hidden secrets they hold?

Question 7: What dinosaur films are your favorites?

                It’s not necessarily a film, but I absolutely love Dinosaur Train! It’s a kids show about a time traveling train which dinosaurs (and pterosaurs and marine reptiles) take all around the Mesozoic. It is by far the most educational and accurate dinosaur show out there, in my opinion. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Jurassic Park but I just can’t seem to keep my mouth shut and I have to point out all the inaccuracies. As a little kid I definitely loved the Land Before Time, up till number 3 and then I just gave up.

Question 8: I remember meeting my first professional paleontologist. Do you remember the first paleontologist you ever met? Were you a nervous wreck?

                The first paleontologist I met was Dr. Richard Kissel who used to work at the Field Museum in Chicago. I worked with him and several other high school students during the summer of 2007 as part of a program called Mastodon Camp. Maybe because I was a naïve high schooler I wasn’t really nervous. Fast forward a few years to my first SVP in 2011 and I was terrified. At that time I was advisor shopping and I really am nervous about talking to people I don’t know. My friend Lauren literally had to shove me to talk to Dr. Tim Rowe and I think I had to stalk my current advisor, Dr. Phil Currie, for several days until I finally found my chance to talk to him; he was the SVP President that year. Thank goodness for having older grad student friends when I was an undergrad.
Visiting Arches National Park, Moab, Utah for spring break 2012 because I love geology. (Photo provided by Betsy Kruk)
Question 9: Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures. Why do you feel dinosaurs continue to fascinate us?

                There is just something about the past that seems to excite people. Dinosaurs are unlike anything alive today, except birds of course. They were the biggest animals to have ever lived and they populated Earth for an expansive period of time. As we joke in the office, dinosaurs are sexy; you get more dinosaur lovers than say mosasaur lovers, which is kind of sad because mosasaurs are pretty awesome. There is just something about dinosaurs that drives people to obsess over them, I’m not sure if I can really explain it.
Structural Dome in Canyonlands National Park, Moab, Utah also spring break 2012. (Photo provided by Betsy Kruk)
Question 10: What is your favorite time period?

                The Cretaceous of course! You had this amazing radiation of forms in ceratopsians that occurred within North America alone. There were so many forms evolving in a small strip of western North America, with all of these crazy horns and frills. It’s absolutely incredible to see the amount of diversity in such a geologically short period of time.

Question 11: Coelophysis is my favorite dinosaur from the sites I work in! What is your favorite dinosaur from your fieldwork sites?

                Well my fieldwork is pretty limited to dinosaur eggs in Montana and China and PachyrhinosaurusI bonebeds. This past summer I only got out for two weeks to Grande Prairie, Alberta, filming for Dino 101 kept me quite busy. But Grande Prairie is where we find Pachyrhinosaurs; there are actually two bonebeds up there. Due to rain we only worked in one of these bonebeds, and we even had a small landslide that hampered our progress in the bonebed, it was a wet and muddy field season for me.
Climbing down into the Charlie Young Bonebed, Grande Prairie, Alberta 2013. (Photo provided by Betsy Kruk)
Question 12: Geology, among many disciplines of study, is such a vital subject when studying the past. Why do you feel this background is important to know when hunting dinosaurs?

                What’s the point of hunting dinosaurs if you don’t know where to find them? You need to be able to recognize the type of rock that they might be preserved in. Not only that, but there is some amazing paleoenvironmental clues that you could really miss out on if you don’t know anything about geology. What kind of setting was the dinosaur preserved in? Did it die in a flood? You need to know what rock is marine or from an inland fluvial system. You miss out on so much information if you don’t know geology, there are so many subtle hints that give you a greater understanding of the context your fossil is found in.

Question 13: Where can our audience go to learn more about your work and support what you do?

                Well for one I have a blog, it’s nothing special just me adventuring my way through grad school ( You could also donate to help build a museum in Grande Prairie that is named after Dr. Currie (; again there are two Pachyrhinosaurus bonebeds in Grande Prairie which is important to my research. Or even donate to the University of Alberta Laboratory for Vertebrate Paleontology.

Question 14: What else do you enjoy? What other interesting hobbies do you have?  I know you are an avid gamer and we are friends on XBOX Live! 

                Depending on the year I’ve been known to do a variety of physical activities, the list of sports I have done is a long one. Right now it’s water polo and dance aerobics. I also have a 4-month-old Lab/Border Collie cross named Huck and I frequently ride horses. I am currently working my way through the Wheel of Time series, it’s seriously like being in a committed relationship, that series is 14 books long and I am on book 8; I love to read fantasy books though. I also know far too much about Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. RPGs, or role-playing games, are my favorite video games, examples being the Elder ScrollsDragon Age, and Fable.
(Photo provided by Betsy Kruk)
Question 15: My first conversation with you was funny and educational.  I enjoyed having you laugh at my Jersey accent ha ha…and educational because you are very passionate about your work.  What are your future goals?  Any plans on visiting the East Coast or have you been in the past?

                I don’t think I had every heard an actual Jersey accent until I talked to you. Future goals would include finishing my Master’s and moving on to my PhD, hopefully still at the University of Alberta. One day I would like a job that allows me to do research and play in the dirt. Currently I have no plans to visit the East Coast, sorry I love my mountains (real mountains) too much. I visited Washington DC twice when I was younger, and that’s about as East Coast as I have been.

Thank you very much for your time Betsy! 

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